Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Separating Curriculum and Instruction

A friend of mine invited me to a webinar featuring Aleta Margolis, Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Inspired Teaching. Since I had never heard of the Center for Inspired Teaching before, I decided to check out their website. What I found there was very impressive.

The mission of the Center for Inspired Teaching is to build a better school experience for children through transformative teacher training. An inspired teacher teaches students how to think, not just what to think, ensuring that students successfully build intellect, inquiry, imagination, and integrity. Their website also mentions a Wonder-Experiment-Learn cycle, but no details are provided.

This represents the state of the art in student-centered instruction, but they take it one step further. If students learn best when they are active, empowered, and inspired, then teachers learn and teach best when they are active, empowered, and inspired. You'd be surprised at how many proponents of student-centered learning believe that they can impose that model on teachers from the top down.

But the people behind the Center for Inspired Teaching aren't hopeless idealists either. It is clear that they are applying lessons learned from the failed reform efforts of the past few decades. They have set up a demonstration school, which indicates that they know that the state of the art isn't good enough. They offer teacher certification through a 24-month residency program, which indicates that they know that you can't shift core beliefs and practices in a one-day workshop; it takes time for new habits to take hold and for skills to be refined and concepts deepened. At the same time, they are forming district partnerships to keep themselves grounded and to demonstrate real-world results.

However, with all that said, I still don't think that they have a snowball's chance in hell of making a serious impact on teaching and learning. When I talk about a serious impact on teaching and learning, I mean a new normal. When I wake up in twenty years, I want to see that every teacher is an inspired teacher and that the thought of being an uninspired teacher is unfathomable. (It's sad that it isn't already.) But we are still talking about inputs at this point. I also want to wake up and see our lowest-performing students outperforming what we consider high performing today, and for anything less to be unfathomable.

When I started blogging in December about my strategic plan, my goal was to dump a bunch of stuff on paper so that I could start processing it without the overhead of holding everything in my head. One realization that bubbled to the surface was that I was using the development of a sense-making curriculum as my compass. As I iterated and refined my practices, I constantly asked myself: "Is this making more or less sense to my students?" If I had even one student who couldn't make sense of something, then it was time for me to go back to the drawing board. Sense-making is the single metric I use to gauge my progress; it is how I close my loop. It isn't the be-all and end-all, but when you are wandering in the fog and the mountain that is your true goal is out of sight, you need something to orient you.

Once I realized that sense-making was my compass, I also realized I wasn't doing anything innovative on the instructional side. Immersive learning, complex problem solving… everything that I do instructionally is being done by someone else. Everything that I do instructionally went mainstream in this country a hundred years ago with John Dewey and the progressive education movement. What I do and what the Center for Inspired Teaching does may be state of the art, but the state of the art is a century old.

After ruminating on these two realizations for a couple of weeks now, I have now had a third realization: curriculum and instruction work together, but the crappy curriculum we have now is acting as a bottleneck in the system. This means that performance scales with instruction up to a certain point, but once you've hit that bottleneck, improving instruction no longer improves performance because the curriculum is holding you back.

One result of this bottleneck is that proponents of progressive methods and proponents of traditional methods are never be able to convince the other side that their methods are superior. The Center for Inspired Teaching has research that shows that "students taught by teachers participating in Inspired Teaching's professional development show greater overall growth in academic achievement than students taught by non-participating teachers." But if I put teachers through professional development that helped them improve their traditional methods, you'd see a similar bump in academic achievement. Any growth in academic achievement you can achieve through progressive methods can also be achieved through traditional methods, especially when you also get to cherry-pick the metric being used. As much as the Center for Inspired Teaching wants to cite research, their choice of teaching methods is driven by educational philosophy, not data. This is why we've been in a stalemate for the last century.

A second result of this bottleneck is a focus on inputs and not outputs. How does an inspired teacher close the loop? The Center for Inspired Teaching lists five metrics:

  • A climate of mutual respect
  • Treating the student as expert
  • Creating a sense of purpose, persistence, and action
  • Instilling joy in learning
  • Providing wide-ranging evidence of learning

As an inspired teacher, I should use these five metrics when designing or evaluating my curriculum and instruction. But I would argue that the first four metrics are inputs that the Center for Inspired Teaching believes will lead to learning, not outputs that are the result of learning. These metrics lead teachers to focus on student choice, appealing to student interests, hands-on learning with manipulatives, open-ended play, and other progressive methods. But how do I decide which strategy to use when? Which metric do I optimize for? How can I tell if one strategy is better than another in this context?

I want my students to have a sense of autonomy, to become resilient problem-solvers, and to take joy in learning, but I lean on sense-making as my compass. I believe that if students are able to make sense of things, everything else will follow. Will my compass lead me astray at times? Yes, but that is why I re-calibrate it against the mountain every chance I get. So far, I see the mountain getting closer.

I said earlier that I am not innovating on the instructional side and that the Center for Inspired Teaching and I are both just practicing the state of the art of student-centered instruction. That's not quite true. Because of my compass, I do have an effective way of evaluating whether or not a specific strategy is working within a specific context, so I am continuously refining my judgment and technique. I feel like this has given me a deeper understanding of these instructional methods, especially in terms of how they fit and work together. Because I have removed the curricular bottleneck, I'm able to push performance past anything that anyone with the old curriculum could ever achieve. I have broken the stalemate, but no one knows it yet.

How do I know that the Center for Inspired Teaching isn't doing the same work that I am? I actually started in the same place they are starting. I walked into the classroom with some progressive ideas and a desire to help students build understanding. Math and science were intuitive to me, and I felt that they should be intuitive to everyone. I didn't have any curricular ideas. I came in and iterated. But I quickly hit the curriculum bottleneck and realized that I needed something better. Once you have that realization, you can't un-have it. The Center for Inspired Teaching hasn't had that realization yet because all they talk about is inputs and instruction. They still have time to get it right, but until they do, they are running the same playbook that John Dewey ran… and we can all see how that turned out.

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